Posted on March 4, 2013 AT 12:00pm
The best labyrinth this side of David Bowie
You wouldn’t think it looking at my gangly arms and knowing my nerdish leanings, but I come from an unusually long line of daring seafarers and explorers. Hardy, stalwart Frisian sailors who braved the icy winds of the North Sea, intrepid Spanish adventurers who charted coastal California for El Virreinato de Nueva España, and dauntless English colonists with names like “Tristram” who drew the first maps of New England in the 17th century.
While I didn’t exactly inherit the muscles, derring-do, or dashing good looks of these mighty men, I did happen to acquire their fastidiousness. An explorer must always take the utmost care when setting off on an uncharted course, and I think that natural meticulous inclination is why Etrian Odyssey, Atlus’ old-school brand of adventuring, has always appealed to me. You may know the series as “that hardcore Japanese first-person dungeon-crawler where a bunch of cutesy anime characters explore a vast labyrinth and players draw their own maps on the touchscreen,” but it’s always been so much more than that to me. It’s allowed me to inhabit the mindset of what it must be like to take a leap into the unknown—and experience a kernel, however infinitesimal, of what my brave ancestors must have felt.
But even a longtime fan like myself would’ve been disappointed if Etrian Odyssey hadn’t made big strides with its first 3DS entry; the follow-ups, while consistently excellent, didn’t really elevate the original 2007 DS experience to new heights. The sequel, Heroes of Lagaard, felt more like an expansion pack, and The Drowned City’s wholly revamped class system and half-baked sailing feature didn’t quite move the series forward in the way many fans hoped.
I’d encourage all veteran Etrian Odyssey players to stop reading here, as the secrets of this fourth entry are the positive changes you’ve likely been waiting for—and best left discovered on your own.
Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan starts the way you’d expect—your band of created neophyte adventurers arrives at a new port of call and must map a labyrinth for the local magistrate—but that’s when the game pulls a patented “Rowdy” Roddy Piper move. Just when you think you’ve got all the answers…it changes the questions.
Upon completing this initial quest, you leave town and discover that there’s an entire world to explore—and that’s how you’ll uncover the daunting, deadly labyrinths this time around. These mazes won’t simply be given to you anymore; you’ll have to earn this game’s countless crypts, caverns, and forests.
Exploration unfolds similarly to the third game’s navigation by sea, with one major—and very much appreciated—exception. While movement in The Drowned City depended upon how many provisions you had on hand, Legends of the Titan offers no such limitations. For the most part, exploration is incumbent only upon your own bravery—or foolishness. Do you dare take that next move forward on an icy, windy mountainside, hoping to uncover a new labyrinth or item…or do you chicken out and warp back to town? (You do have the necessary item to warp back, don’t you?) Of course, the entire world isn’t available to explore from the start, but with airship upgrades and the like, you can slowly uncover every last section, which makes the process feel far more organic that the arbitrary limit set in Etrian Odyssey III.
Legends of the Titan also eschews the class changes of the previous game (perhaps taking to heart U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s assertion on Sesame Street that “Princess” isn’t a valid occupation) and gone back to basics, with a suite of easy-to-understand jobs based on the first two games that veterans will appreciate and newcomers will easily warm to. And lest you think that the punishing universe of Etrian Odyssey is no place for greenhorns, a new, more-forgiving Casual mode makes this a perfect place for those players to start.
Now, I’m of the belief that in order to truly experience the thrill of this series, you’ve got to have the Sword of Damocles constantly hovering over your head. When you stumble across a lumbering FOE—short for formido oppugnatura exsequens, the series’ big, bad wandering labyrinth guardians—you must feel like your very existence is in immediate, palpable danger.
But I’ve also come to realize that a good number of players view this franchise as an impenetrable hardcore adventurers’ club populated by perverts who love to ogle dungeon-exploring moe lolis. Number one, I take offense to that juvenile aspersion, and number two, I feel like this series is actually a lot more accessible than something like, say, Dark Souls. If this lower barrier of entry reels in the curious—just as the similarly forgiving Casual mode drew new Fire Emblem players into Awakening—then this addition’s absolutely worth it. Just be aware that we veteran Etrian devotees won’t take your guild seriously until you’ve graduated to Normal difficulty.
I’m not usually big on pointing out visual enhancements, but in this case, the improvements seen here via the power of the 3DS really add to the immersion factor. Rather than simple blobs outside of combat, FOEs are now menacing, snarling ursine attackers and scaly, slippery lizards. If possible, this makes avoiding these encounters with near-certain death all the more hair-raising. You can even examine labyrinths in far more detail now, such as craning your neck to scope out the ceiling of a cavern; clever details like ancient wall paintings impart the feeling that these are real places that have been continually explored over the millennia.
Of course, these aren’t barren, abandoned mazes; they’re packed with all manner of vile beasts outside of the FOEs, and the vast majority of your time in a given labyrinth revolves around combat. For the uninitiated, Etrian Odyssey’s battle system is more or less a straight lift of Dragon Quest’s classic monster encounters. I know some view that series’ combat mechanics as overly pedestrian, but there’s a reason it’s been beloved in Japan for more than 25 years—it’s straight, to the point, and relatively quick and painless. This combat conceit isn’t about flashy animations or summoning some Classical deity in the guise of a preening Japanese pop star; it’s about expressing the amount of damage inflicted and status ailments afflicted in the most streamlined way possible. This philosophy extends to the game’s revamped skill system, which now lets you know which abilities you’ll need to unlock in order to trigger more powerful techniques.
The one area where Legends of the Titan does manage to disappoint is, interestingly enough, when it comes to one of the franchise’s selling points: mapping the dungeons on the touchscreen. It’s simply not as streamlined and user-friendly as it should be four iterations into the series. The interface hasn’t really changed since the first entry, and the game doesn’t offer the player any sort of direction as to what the various icons are supposed to mean. After four games, I have a system in place that works for me, but the lack of direction may seriously baffle new players.
Also, is creating an auto-path, step by step, with clunky icons really the best travel shortcut the developers can come up with? I can’t simply draw the direction I want to go in the labyrinth with the stylus? Since diving into this game is a deliberate process to begin with, these issues don’t exactly break the pacing of the experience, but it also feels like you’re dealing with an unnecessary five to 10 minutes of busywork every time you go exploring—which, given the game’s substantial length, certainly adds up over time.
At least you’ll always be rocking out with the stylus in hand, though, as 16-bit gaming legend Yuzo Koshiro (ActRaiser, Streets of Rage) makes his return here—this time with a fully orchestrated score. His Genesis-style synthesizer doesn’t make the trip this time, but those retro tunes wouldn’t quite mesh with the new 3D visuals. Some fans may lament this loss—I do myself, to an extent—but the updated audio fidelity means that you’ll hear a far more diverse soundtrack this time around (including the apparent musical genres of “1970s Japanese supermarket” and “Mid-’90s erotic thriller”).
Etrian Odyssey has always succeeded in capturing the classic motif of first-person labyrinth exploration, but it’s never quite nailed that utterly rewarding Dungeons & Dragons feeling of setting off on a fantastic adventure from start to finish. With Legends of the Titan, though, I can truly describe this experience as a full-fledged RPG for the first time—not a mere dungeon-crawler.
|Developer: Atlus • Publisher: Atlus • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 02.26.2013|
|9.0||For those who expected a straight 3DS rehash of the series’ 2D entries, think again. Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan moves the preeminent first-person dungeon-crawler forward in ways that longtime, hardcore fans will appreciate—yet novice would-be adventurers won’t be overwhelmed here.|
|The Good||Expands traditional Etrian Odyssey labyrinth exploration to a true full-scale adventure.|
|The Bad||Mapping and interface feel a little dated at this point.|
|The Ugly||Some of Yuzo Koshiro’s sultry, sax-laden cavern themes bring to mind Shannon Tweed in a mid-’90s Skinemax thriller. (…In the best possible way, of course.)|
|Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan is a Nintendo 3DS exclusive.|
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